I broadly enjoyed The Martian at least in part because until after I’d seen it, nobody described it as Robinson Crusoe In Space – there is actually a film literally named that, but I’ve never seen it. “Robinsonades” could be further described by a number of broad sub-types, including the Return to Eden ™, Man Versus Nature ™, Imperialist Fantasy of White Supremacy ™, and so on. There are aspects of most of these in the Martian, but I think what dominated the discussion around the film, and what I felt was the primary dramatic ploy, was the much-quoted “I’m going to Science the Shit out of it” line from early-ish in the film – Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is an expert displaying his particular expertise, and that works especially well as a quotation because it literally involves shit.
Bizarrely, the most striking thing about this film is how uncontroversial and undramatic it is. It has the necessary ingredients to challenge an audience on a number of fronts, but adroitly and comfortably navigates a medium course where we feel the pleasure of expertise without being bothered by a vision of American exceptionalism. We see Watney in trouble, but I never really feared for his ultimate survival. I think it does this by relentlessly focusing on keeping one character in jeopardy, with the only stake for each challenge being life or death. We tend to think of Robinson Crusoe and clones in that way, but there is actually a huge part of the novel devoted to whether he will retain his civilised character, and then whether he will be able to pass that civilisation on. There are minor conflicts about the mode of his life, about the location he’ll establish his camp, and so on. Watney has exactly one possible living position, exactly one potential food source, exactly one potential exit vector, and so on. It’s a film that works by confining the possibility range to the utmost extreme of pass or fail. Watney’s ultimate survival is more or less guaranteed by the premise of the film, so this cycle never reaches full dramatic maturity.
I’m actually broadly sympathetic with the idea that the film can be classed as a comedy, which caused a certain amount of consternation when the Golden Globes happened. We tend to think of comedy, modern comedy, as having a laughs-per-minute objective. Which makes classifying something like a Wodehouse novel very easy, but something like a Bulgakov novel ambivalent – it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s definitely not to be taken as literally serious either. When Northrop Frye grappled with this question in Anatomy of Criticism, he used the working definitions that a comedy was about a character rejoining society, while a tragedy was a character inexorably being ripped out of society. The Martian is very deliberately about Watney’s attempts to remain part of society, through things like his vlog and jerry-rigged communication system, leading to his ultimate goal of rejoining it. Ergo, simplistically, comedy. And actually, I think there probably were more laughs to be had than in some recent lamentable “comedies”.
The overwhelming comment that I saw about this film at the time was that Drew Goddard’s script was crucial to breaking Ridley Scott’s slump. Good script + visual stylist = good movie. That’s a basic formula I think we can all get behind, and all too often in our modern auteur film perspective we forget about the guy with the words, so it’s nice to see Goddard getting his due.